Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Story of the Day-Teacher on blasphemy charge over 'Muhammad' teddy bear

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Teacher arrested for blasphemy

British woman facing lashes over Muhammad teddy bear
A British school teacher arrested in Sudan faces up to 40 lashes for blasphemy after allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, is said to be fearing for her life after a group of men shouted death threats at her as she was taken into custody by Sudanese authorities.

She was arrested after parents of some of her students accused her of insulting the prophet of Islam.

Colleagues at Khartoum's Unity High School say she made the innocent mistake of letting her six and seven-year-old pupils name the class teddy bear Muhammad.

Under Sudan's Sharia law, the punishment for blasphemy is 40 lashes, or up to six months in jail.

British Teacher Jailed for Name of Teddy Bear in Sudan

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What can't be named Muhammad?

British teacher Gillian Gibbons stands accused of insulting Islam's Prophet after allowing her pupils in Sudan to name a teddy bear Muhammad. What are the rules on using the name?
The Arabic name Muhammad is now the second most popular name for baby boys in Britain, adding together its 14 different spellings in English.

Muslim families - of which there are an increasing number in the UK - often choose names which honour the Prophet or show a link to their religion in another way.

But is it acceptable to name a toy Muhammad? The arrest of Ms Gibbons has sparked debate in Islamic circles. As is the case in so many religious matters, the question is open to interpretation.

The issue has been a vexed one for Muslims through the ages. Some believe that the name can only be given to boys - to give it to an object is idolatry. Others say that pets and toys can bear the name.

Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the interfaith Muslim Public Affairs Committee and an imam in Leicester, says the name should be reserved for boys. "Some of us believe we are assured of heaven if we name our children Muhammad."

But he says it's ridiculous that Ms Gibbons is being punished for a "miscalculation".

If someone clearly intends to insult and cause offence with a toy in the form of a pig, for example, and someone knowingly and intentionally names it Muhammad, we know exactly where they're going with it - the idea is to cause offence. If it's just a miscalculation, we don't need to go overboard."

Dilwar Hussain, of the Islamic Foundation, has no problem with a teddy bear called Muhammad. For some years, the Islamic Society sold a soft toy made for British Muslim children named Adam the Prayer Bear. "Adam is also the name of a Prophet."

Would it be acceptable to give a religious name to a pet? In much of the Muslim world, he says, animals are seen as functional and so are rarely given names.


But Adel Darwish, the political editor of The Middle East magazine, says that Muslim children - "like children everywhere" - give their pets the names of characters they liked, be it a religious figure, sports hero or pop singer.
Millions of Muslim children in Muslim nations give their dolls, pets and teddies Muslim names of the Prophet and his mother, daughters and wives."

Gill Lusk, the associate editor of Africa Confidential and a specialist on Sudan, says the incident will have offended many in the country. As Sudan is a place where religion is never mocked or satirised, it's "unthinkable" that a toy or pet could be given a religious name.

"You're not supposed to give a religious name to any objects - it could be seen as idolatry."

But the majority of Sudanese people won't want to see Ms Gibbons in trouble for the naming of the teddy bear.

"People are very forgiving of foreigners, particularly Europeans. Nobody would think she was trying to offend them - they would just think she was ignorant."

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Sudan: Teacher in Bear Case May Be Freed
Sudanese Official Says the Teacher Held for Naming a Teddy Bear 'Muhammad' Could Be Freed Soon
A British teacher arrested for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad will probably be cleared and released soon, a spokesman for the Sudanese embassy in London said Tuesday.

Gillian Gibbons was arrested Sunday and faced possible charges of insulting religion a crime punishable by up to 40 lashes. She was questioned by Sudanese authorities on Tuesday.

"The police is bound to investigate," embassy spokesman Khalid al Mubarak told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "I am pretty certain that this minute incident will be clarified very quickly and this teacher who has been helping us with the teaching of children will be safe and will be cleared."

Asked about the potential punishments six months imprisonment or 40 lashes he said: "My impression is that the whole thing could probably be settled amicably long before we reach stages like these ... Our relationship with Britain is so good that we wouldn't like such a minute event to be overblown."

Gibbons was arrested after one of her pupils' parents complained, accusing her of naming the bear after Islam's prophet and founder. Muhammad is a common name among Muslim men, but giving the prophet's name to an animal would be seen as insulting by many Muslims.

Sudan's United Nations ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, said Tuesday that Sudanese authorities were concerned enough about the volatility of the situation to take steps to protect Gibbons' safety.

"We're careful and very concerned about her safety," Mohamad said in answer to a reporter's question. "I can assure you her safety, she will be very much protected, and no harm will ever come to her while we are protecting her."

Several Sudanese newspapers ran a statement Tuesday reportedly from Unity High School in Khartoum where Gibbons taught, saying the administration "offers an official apology to the students and their families and all Muslims for what came from an individual initiative." It said Gibbons had been "removed from her work at the school."

In the first official comment on the case, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday played down the significance of the case, calling it "isolated despite our condemnation and rejection of it."
Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadeq said it was an incidence of a "teacher's misconduct against the Islamic faith" but noted the school's apology.

The statement from the school in newspapers called it a "misunderstanding." It underlined the school's "deep respect for the heavenly religions" and for the "beliefs of Muslims and their rituals."

The Arabic statement was not officially confirmed by the school. But a person reached by phone at the school who identified herself as an administrator said the statement was correct. She refused to give her name, citing the sensitivity of the situation.

She said the school has closed for at least the next week until the controversy eases. The Unity High School, a private English-language school with elementary to high school levels, was founded by Christian groups, but 90 percent of its students are Muslim, mostly from upper-class Sudanese families.

The school's director, Robert Boulos, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the incident was "a completely innocent mistake. Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."

Gibbons, 54, was teaching her pupils, who are around age 7, about animals and asked one of them to bring in her teddy bear, Boulos said. She asked the students to pick names for it and they proposed Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad, and in the end the pupils voted to name it Muhammad, he said.

Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear's picture on the cover, labeled, "My Name is Muhammad," he said. The bear itself was never labeled with the name, he added.

A former colleague of Gibbons, Jill Langworthy, told The Associated Press the lesson is a common one in Britain.

"She's a wonderful and inspirational teacher, and if she offended or insulted anybody she'd be dreadfully sorry," said Langworthy, who taught with Gibbons in Liverpool.

There were widespread calls in Britain for Gibbons' release. The Muslim Council of Britain called upon the Sudanese government to intervene. British opposition Conservative party lawmaker William Hague called on the British government to "make it clear to the Sudanese authorities that she should be released immediately."
Omar Daair, spokesman for the British Embassy in Sudan, said embassy officials were in touch with Sudanese authorities and had met with Gibbons. He said he expected authorities to decide whether to bring her to court, and on what charges, within a few days.

"Her lawyer is trying to get her released on bail in the meanwhile," he said.

The case recalled the outrage that was sparked in the Islamic world when European newspapers ran cartoons deriding the Prophet Muhammad, prompting sometimes violent protests in many Muslim countries. Most interpretations of the religion bar even favorable depictions of the highly revered prophet, for fear of encouraging idolatry or misrepresenting him.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir this month suggested this month that he would ban Denmark, Sweden and Norway where newspapers ran the cartoons from contributing engineering personnel to a planned U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Al-Bashir's government already has tense relations with the West, which has widely condemned his regime for alleged abuses in Darfur where more than 200,000 people have died in a conflict that began in early 2003.
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